Massachusetts Circular Letter — Text and Explanation

February 11, 1768

Samuel Adams and James Otis wrote the Massachusetts Circular Letter. The letter protested the Townshend Acts and suggested the legislatures of the American Colonies should work together to find a constitutional solution to ongoing issues regarding taxation and governance.

Samuel Adams, Sons of Liberty, Portrait, Copley

Samuel Adams. Image Source: MFA Boston.

Overview

The Massachusetts Circular Letter was sent by the Massachusetts House of Representatives, the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature, to the general assemblies of the other 12 colonies. The letter explained the issues Massachusetts had with the Townshend Acts and the actions it had taken. Massachusetts assumed the other colonies had the same problems, so it suggested they should work together to find a constitutional solution to the crisis caused by the Townshend Acts.

Key Points

  • The letter was written for Massachusetts by Samuel Adams and James Otis Jr.
  • Massachusetts acknowledged Parliament had supreme governmental authority over the British Empire, but its power came from the constitution.
  • It argued a constitution for “free states” is fixed, and if Parliament exceeded the authority granted by the constitution, it damaged its credibility.
  • Under the constitution, British subjects have a “natural right to property.”
  • Massachusetts believed Parliament exceeded its authority by passing the Townshend Acts, which threatened the natural rights of the people, who were British subjects.
  • It sent letters to British officials in England, explaining its position.
  • Massachusetts wanted to see how the other colonial legislatures felt about the Townshend Acts and asked them to provide their opinions.

Issues and Concerns

  • Taxation without representation is unjust and violates the constitutional and natural rights of British subjects. Taxation without representation is theft.
  • Colonial legislatures were established to govern the colonies, because of the distance between America and England. One purpose of the colonial legislatures was to levy taxes.
  • Another purpose of the colonial legislatures was to set and pay the salaries of governors and judges. Transferring this to the British government would weaken the legislatures and threaten the “happiness and security” of Americans.
  • Parliament was forcing the colonies to pay for an army that Massachusetts felt was unnecessary.
  • The expansion of the number of customs officials in America was a threat to “personal liberties.”

The Massachusetts Circular Letter of February 11, 1768

The text of the Massachusetts Circular Letter follows. Please note that we have added section headings, and notes to help readers scan and understand the text. The “Explanation” that follows each section summarizes the meaning for students. See Massachusetts Circular Letter History for more information.

Introduction

The House of Representatives of this province have taken into their serious consideration the great difficulties that must accrue to themselves and their constituents by the operation of several Acts of Parliament, imposing duties and taxes on the American colonies.

Section 1

As it is a subject in which every colony is deeply interested, they have no reason to doubt but your house is deeply impressed with its importance, and that such constitutional measures will be come into as are proper. It seems to be necessary that all possible care should be taken that the representatives of the several assemblies, upon so delicate a point, should harmonize with each other. The House, therefore, hope that this letter will be candidly considered in no other light than as expressing a disposition freely to communicate their mind to a sister colony, upon a common concern, in the same manner as they would be glad to receive the sentiments of your or any other house of assembly on the continent.

Explanation of the Introduction and Section 1

The Massachusetts House of Representatives is concerned about the Townshend Act. It has reached out to other colonial legislatures, because:

  • The House believes other colonial legislatures have the same concerns.
  • It wants to find an effective constitutional solution to the problems raised by the Townshend Acts.
  • The House hopes to create an open collaboration with other legislatures, and encourages the exchange of opinions.

Section 2

The House have humbly represented to the ministry their own sentiments, that his Majesty’s high court of Parliament is the supreme legislative power over the whole empire; that in all free states the constitution is fixed, and as the supreme legislative derives its power and authority from the constitution, it cannot overleap the bounds of it without destroying its own foundation; that the constitution ascertains and limits both sovereignty and allegiance, and, therefore, his Majesty’s American subjects, who acknowledge themselves bound by the ties of allegiance, have an equitable claim to the full enjoyment of the fundamental rules of the British constitution; that it is an essential, unalterable right in nature, engrafted into the British constitution, as a fundamental law, and ever held sacred and irrevocable by the subjects within the realm, that what a man has honestly acquired is absolutely his own, which he may freely give, but cannot be taken from him without his consent; that the American subjects may, therefore, exclusive of any consideration of charter rights, with a decent firmness, adapted to the character of free men and subjects, assert this natural and constitutional right.

Explanation

  • The Massachusetts House of Representatives acknowledges that the British Parliament is considered the supreme legislative authority over the entire British Empire.
  • The House argues that in free states, including the British Empire, the constitution establishes the framework within which all governance must operate. 
  • It suggests that Parliament cannot exceed the boundaries set by the constitution without undermining its own legitimacy.
  • The House believes the constitution defines and constrains both sovereignty and allegiance. Therefore, American subjects, who pledge allegiance to the British Crown, have a rightful claim to the protections and privileges afforded by the British constitution.
  • British subjects have a natural right to property, which is ingrained in the British constitution. This includes the right to protection of acquired property from arbitrary seizure or confiscation without consent.
  • The House encourages Americans to assert their natural and constitutional rights with dignity. It suggests that these rights should be defended, regardless of the provisions of colonial charters

Section 3

It is, moreover, their humble opinion, which they express with the greatest deference to the wisdom of the Parliament, that the Acts made there, imposing duties on the people of this province, with the sole and express purpose of raising a revenue, are infringements of their natural and constitutional rights; because, as they are not represented in the British Parliament, his Majesty’s commons in Britain, by those Acts, grant their property without their consent.

Explanation

  • The House argues levying taxes on the people of Massachusetts solely to generate revenue violates their natural and constitutional rights. 
  • This argument hinges on the principle that taxation without representation is unjust, and Americans lack direct representation in the British Parliament.
  • By imposing taxes without consent, Parliament effectively confiscates property without consent.

Section 4

This House further are of opinion that their constituents, considering their local circumstances, cannot, by any possibility, be represented in the Parliament; and that it will forever be impracticable, that they should be equally represented there, and consequently, not at all; being separated by an ocean of a thousand leagues. That his Majesty’s royal predecessors, for this reason, were graciously pleased to form a subordinate legislature here, that their subjects might enjoy the unalienable right of a representation; also, that considering the utter impracticability of their ever being fully and equally represented in Parliament, and the great expense that must unavoidably attend even a partial representation there, this House think that a taxation of their constituents, even without their consent, grievous as it is, would be preferable to any representation that could be admitted for them there.

Explanation

  • The House believes Americans cannot be adequately represented in Parliament due to the geographical and cultural distance between America and Great Britain.
  • Previous British monarchs recognized this and established colonial legislatures, subordinate to Parliament, to ensure their subjects could enjoy the fundamental right of representation.
  • The House suggests that even without direct consent, it would be preferable for the colonies to be taxed by their legislatures than to pursue representation in Parliament.

Section 5

Upon these principles, and also considering that were the right in Parliament ever so clear, yet, for obvious reasons, it would be beyond the rules of equity that their constituents should be taxed on the manufactures of Great Britain here, in addition to the duties they pay for them in England, and other advantages arising to Great Britain, from the Acts of trade, this House have preferred a humble, dutiful, and loyal petition, to our most gracious sovereign, and made such representations to his Majesty’s ministers, as they apprehended would tend to obtain redress. They have also submitted to consideration, whether any people can be said to enjoy any degree of freedom if the Crown, in addition to its undoubted authority of constituting a governor, should appoint him such a stipend as it may judge proper, without the consent of the people, and at their expense; and whether, while the judges of the land, and other civil officers, hold not their commissions during good behaviour, their having salaries appointed for them by the Crown, independent of the people, hath not a tendency to subvert the principles of equity, and endanger the happiness and security of the subject.

Explanation

  • The House addressed its grievances through the proper channels, in a loyal petition to the King and the King’s ministers.
  • It questions the fairness of taxing the colonies on British manufactures, particularly when they already pay duties on those goods in England.
  • The House questions whether true freedom can exist if the Crown can unilaterally appoint governors and determine their salaries without the consent of the people.
  • It also questions the practice of appointing salaries for judges and civil officers by the Crown, independent of colonial legislatures, because it could undermine the “happiness and security” of Americans, who are the King’s subjects.

Section 6

In addition to these measures, the House have written a letter to their agent which he is directed to lay before the ministry; wherein they take notice of the hardships of the Act for preventing mutiny and desertion, which requires the governor and council to provide enumerated articles for the king’s marching troops, and the people to pay the expenses; and also, the commission of the gentlemen appointed commissioners of the customs, to reside in America, which authorizes them to make as many appointments as they think fit, and to pay the appointees what sum they please, for whose malconduct they are not accountable; from whence it may happen that officers of the Crown may be multiplied to such a degree as to become dangerous to the liberty of the people, by virtue of a commission, which does not appear to this House to derive any such advantages to trade as many have supposed.

Explanation

  • The House has written a letter to its agent in London, instructing him to present their concerns to the Ministry.
  • It also takes issue with the Indemnity Act, which is seen as burdensome to the colonies, forcing them to bear the financial costs associated with maintaining military forces, which the House believes is unnecessary.
  • The House takes issue with the Commissioners of Customs Act, which gives commissioners authority to appoint as many officers as they see fit and determine their salaries without accountability. 
  • It is concerned that the proliferation of Crown officers might pose a threat to personal liberties, instead of encouraging trade.

Massachusetts Circular Letter APUSH Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Massachusetts Circular Letter, the Townshend Acts, and the American Revolution for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Definition

The Massachusetts Circular Letter was drafted by Samuel Adams and James Otis Jr. in February 1768, in response to the Townshend Acts. The letter urged colonial assemblies to unite in opposition to the taxes imposed by the British Parliament without colonial consent. It called for ongoing communication between the assemblies to find a constitutional solution to the crisis, and increased the call for “No Taxation Without Representation.”

Significance

The Massachusetts Circular Letter helped lay the foundation for intercolonial communication — Committees of Correspondence — and intercolonial cooperation — the First Continental Congress.

Video

This video from the Tenth Amendment Center explains the Massachusetts Circular Letter, and the difference between a “fixed” constitution versus a “living, breathing” constitution.

APUSH Units

The Massachusetts Circular Letter is part of the following:

  • APUSH Unit 3: 1754–1800
  • APUSH Unit 3: Topic 3.5 — The American Revolution

Lesson Plans and Resources

American History Central Resources

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Massachusetts Circular Letter — Text and Explanation
  • Date February 11, 1768
  • Author
  • Keywords Massachusetts Circular Letter, Massachusetts Circular Letter Primary Document, Massachusetts Circular Letter Text, Massachusetts Circular Letter Explained, Massachusetts Circular Letter APUSH
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update May 1, 2024

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